Christian persecution in the Roman empire
Although this page will tend to concentrate on martyrs and Christian persecution in the Roman empire we should also note that dying for one’s cause was not a Christian prerogative: Even before the period of Christ the Ancient Romans had traditions of self sacrifice for the common cause (of Rome).
One such example was the belief that if a general sacrificed himself to “Jupiter, Mars, the Earth and the Infernal Gods” he would ensure that the misadventures and misfortunes which were assailing both himself and his soldiers would be thrown over to the enemies.
A concrete example of this is given to us by the Roman family of the Decii of whom the grandfather, father and son all sacrificed themselves for the good of their armies, the first at war with the Latins, the second against the Etruscans and the son in the war against Pyrrhus. In all three cases the battles and wars were won against the odds.
The poet Juvenal immortalised the deeds of this family in verse:
From a mean stock the pious Decii came,
Small their estates and vulgar was their name,
Yes such their virtue, that their loss alone,
For Rome and all our legions could atone,
Their country’s doom they by their own retrieved,
Themselves more worth than all the host they saved.
But on to Christian persecution and martyrs…. Being bloodthirsty times it is not surprising that the death of martyrs was often quite gory. A few examples of Christian Persecutions are listed below.
Why the Christian Persecutions in the Roman Empire?
The Christians (and Jews with whom they were sometimes confused) differed from the followers of the pagan gods in many ways and this is made particularly poignant by the ancient Romans themselves: The Christians were those “fools who shared all their belongings” to which the Christians retorted that “they shared everything that every body else kept separate and kept separate the one thing which everybody else shared: their wives.”
We should not forget that many Christians were in fact Roman citizens. The structure of the fledgling Christian church made the Christians into more than a religion amongst many but rather like a state within a state (Rome).
Religious promiscuity of Ancient Rome
Roman religion was not what we might regard as religion nowadays. The Roman citizen had a different relationship with the gods from the relationship we might imagine today. This relationship was more a give and take whereby it was important for the individual to observe and follow ritual in order to appease the divinity’s hunger and needs. In exchange the citizen could hope to obtain some favour or at least avoid punishment.
As the Roman individuals were concerned there was little problem with believing in and following more than one divinity and appealing to whichever divinity suited your specific needs. By and large the Roman authorities themselves had little problem with the empire’s citizens following whichever divinities they might choose, so long as it didn’t go against the state’s interests.
With respect to Christianity the attitude of the authorities was at first quite liberal and open: in the Eastern Mediterranean region, Rome was either neutral or actually benevolent towards the religion of Christ. In Rome itself St. Paul, who was himself a Roman citizen born in the Middle East, was deemed not guilty of the charge of impiety levied against him by the Pharisees and was actually allowed to go about the city and preach the word of God (the gospels weren’t written yet!) A quick paragraph out of the Bible’s ACTS 28:17 is interesting in this respect:
“Paul Preaches at Rome Under Guard
Three days later he called together the leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, Paul said to them: ‘My brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or against the customs of our ancestors, I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. They examined me and wanted to release me, because I was not guilty of any crime deserving death. But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar – not that I had any charge to bring against my own people.“
It is worth noting that Caesar at that time was Nero! Verse 30 is pretty interesting too:
“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Emperor – Gods of Rome
We may regard the average Roman citizen’s promiscuous attitude to the divine as being accentuated when successive emperors followed an increasingly oriental style of absolutist rule. In the orient the ruler was both Lord and God. Whilst Julius Caesar and Augustus were “deified” after their death a number of successive emperors, such as Nero, Domitian or Diocletian for example, felt it more suitable to assume the role of divinity whilst still alive as a living Emperor-God of Rome.
This implied that citizens should pay due respects to the emperor’s “genius” (spirit) in sign of loyalty and respect to the state. At this point we can see the danger point: The Christians were not only a growing state within a state but they were following a law which had a point of reference which was not Roman law. To make things worse their monotheist beliefs also prohibited them from paying their respects to the emperor-divinity! What better proof could there be of their seditious nature? Collision course amigos!
It is easy to see how the Christians might be regarded as anti-Roman traitors set against the state and guilty of the empire’s ills, if nothing else by having angered the (pagan) gods and as such worthy of persecution and punishment. It is not surprising that the Christians built up quite a lot of popular resentment against themselves and made such good scape-goats in politically difficult situations such as the burning of Rome in 64AD under Nero’s reign.
According to the non Christians, the Christians were capable of cannibalism (the Eucarist) and incest (they called each other “brothers” and “sisters”). The historian Tacitus talks of “the notoriously depraved Christians” and of “…the deadly superstition (that had) broken out afresh, not only in Judaea but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices flourish in the capital.” Cripes!
Eventually the authorities came to give some credit to these negative rumours and led to incresingly severe persecutions of the Christians, who according to their pagan adversaries were inflamed by a loathing of the human race: “odium generis humani”. Public enemy number one & prime culprit for the empire’s calamities.
There was also another facet of course: The Christians, particularly in later periods of the empire, included a number of very wealthy citizens and proscription meant confiscation of their estates. The state was increasingly weak and in need of cash so what better action than to persecute the anti-state revolutionaries and make a bit of income in the bargain!?
Having said all that, it is quite likely that the Christians themselves were not exactly a people apart from their brethren Romans. It is probable that they too had their more violent political activists amongst their numbers, not to mention the every-day citizen cum Christian who happily went to the Colosseum to enjoy the frequent public massacres of men and animals, or so we are told by St. Augustine who happened to be around in those final days of the Empire. Not surprisingly there were all sorts.
The Christian religion itself, when compared to others of the time, might be regarded as a relatively aggressive and predatory religion. Whilst other powerful religions including other “mystery religions” such as Mithraism permitted the existence of Christianity, Christianity held on to its absolutist, monotheist vision. To the death. Hence the martyrs.
Two centuries of zealous anti-Christian emperors, including great luminaries such as the emperors Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, drove the Christians underground into the secrecy and damp of the Catacombs. The frequent paintings and engravings within the Catacombs betray the shifting borders between the pagan gods and Christianity with depictions of the Sun-God Apollo on his quadriga chariot in the guise of Christ.
By the fourth century things took a favourable turn: Emperor Constantine became a Christian convert and rubber-stamped the future of the Western world right to the present day.
The Victor gets to Write History – Christians in the Colosseum
At this point we have a further factor which potentially colours our view of events: many of the sources and current knowledge regarding the persecution of the Christians during the Roman Empire were actually written by Christians. Given that history is often written by the victor it is easy to imagine that a great deal more colour has been applied than might actually have been the case. An example of this is the extent of Christian martyrdom in the Colosseum.
By all accounts the Colosseum was indeed used for Christian executions and martyrdoms but accounts vary to the extent of such use. Some suggest that other sites such as the Circus were more likely sites for execution and crucifixion. St. Paul, being a Roman citizen was spared the ignominy of public exhibition and was beheaded in relative privacy outside the walls of Rome.
St. Ignatius is said to have been the first Christian martyr (eaten by Lions), followed by many others, for example some 115 Christians were apparently shot down with arrows. To offset the many statistics it should be noted that very recently the Catholic Church made a bit of order in the Saintly ranks by eliminating a number of Martyr-Saints of whose martyrdom or even existence there is little (or no) evidence.
Christian Martyrs and Martyrdoms
Christian martyrdoms were pretty atrocious events but we should bear in mind that all capital punishments of the time were atrocious, not just those of the Christians. To this we should add that given that Christianity posed an increasingly growing threat to the establishment the reaction against them became increasingly fierce. So yes, it is likely that the Christians suffered en masse like no-one else (except perhaps the gladiators and slaves who dared revolt with the gladiator Spartacus a few hundred years earlier).
Nonetheless Christianity did eventually win the day and got to write many of the records and quite rightly recorded its heroes and martyrs. In some cases recording events which weren’t quite exact or true but generally speaking allowed us, directly or indirectly, to learn much of what we know.
The forms of doing someone in once they were convicted could be quite varied: things like being roasted alive, getting thrown off high places, tied up to have your spleen pecked out by vicious birds or being set amongst wild beasts (damnatio ad bestia) were but a few. The “Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas” tell us how two Christian women met their horrid death whilst the crowd shouted “Salvum Lotum!” (well washed!) at the blood bath. Yuk
The true facts of Nero’s persecution of the Christians are rendered difficult to interpret and ascertain because each side did its best to make use of political propaganda. Nero himself left a bad impression with the historians of the time which blurred the picture even further.
The long and short of it is that fires were frequent in Rome and a particularly bad one burnt much of the city down during the course of six days. On the one hand Nero made a speedy return to Rome from the south where he was on holiday and organised relief, food and protection for the 200,000 homeless. On the other hand public opinion chose to make Nero the culprit of the fire and he, in a political maneuver to keep a hold on public opinion, took it out on the Christians (who everyone distrusted anyway).
It seems certain that during those dreadful nights of fire there were a number of arsonists, running through the streets of Rome, whose true intentions are difficult to define. They threw burning torches around the city and shouted that they had received orders from above and anyone who might attempt to put the flames out was heavily threatened.
At any rate the result was a merciless persecution of the Christians who were tortured by such dreadful means that even the pagans felt sorrow for their fate. It is said that many were dipped in oil and lit as living human torches whilst others were sewn into animal skins and led to die, mauled by wild animals and dogs.
The Four Crowned Saints.
These four Christians were martyred by having crowns of thorns nailed into their heads. The crowns themselves were made of metal. A church commemorates their martyrdom.
Became quite a figure, particularly during the Renaissance when during restoration work in the church bearing her name her body was found under the altar. The body is said to have been perfectly preserved like the very day she was buried.
A statue was sculpted in the very position she was found in and a copy may be viewed in the catacombs. Her hands are tied behind her back and her body is clearly contorted in anguish. It’s quite moving – her body lies there, dumped and dead with her head twisted aside.
St. Agnes – to be continued…
The End of Christian Persecution in Ancient Rome
The end of Christian persecution in Ancient Rome really began with Emperor Constantine who was a convert to Christianity and pronounced the “edict of Christian tolerance” or “edict of Milan”. With this edict he didn’t actually make Christianity the state religion but he did at least put it on a par with other religions such as Mithraism.
Constantine was apparently brought up with a modicum of Christian faith by his father Constantius Chlorus but during his military career he is said to have followed a number of divinities such as the sun god-Apollo.
Constantine was not only an able commander but also certain of his destiny to put order to the empire. He marched for Rome to meet Maxentius in battle and win sole controll of the Empire. When he reached the outskirts of the city he had a vision of the Christian cross and heard the words “in hoc signo vinces” (by this sign shalt thou conquer). Eusebius tells us that “…. while he was thus praying, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven. He said that about noon he saw with his own eyes a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun….”. That night Constantine had a vision of Christ instructing him to use the cross as the sign of his standard in battle. The following day, October 26th 312AD, he met his rival in battle at the Milvian bridge, which he won. Constanine had thus managed to unite the whole Western half of the empire under his own rule and became sole emperor for the next 25 years.
The odd bit of anti Christian discrimination did reappear now and then but not for long. Little by little the Christians gained more and more rights and the number of followers increased rapidly as more and more people lost faith in the old gods.
As already mentioned the Edict of Milan didn’t proclaim Christianity to be the official religion of the empire but subsequent enactments favored the Christian cult greatly: The clergy were exempt from a number of municipal duties, providing an incentive for the richer social classes to become priests and bishops. The church also benefited from regular payments from state funds and Sunday was declared as a day of rest which for the non-Christians was seen as the feast of the sun god.
Constantine and his family gave great sums of money so that new churches and basilicas might be built throughout the empire. Constantine also donated his own palace on the Lateran to the church and built a great basilica nearby (San Giovanni in Laterano). The extent of Constantine’s secular bequeath to the church formed much of the basis for the Pope’s later claim to secular power and rule during the middle ages and renaissance.
By the year 391 AD under the reign of Emperor Theodosius Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire. The empire fell some 80 years later and the Christian church was the only bureaucratic organisation left in the city which was capable of governing day to day affairs.
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